Alan Alda on Teaching Science

Scale, scale, scale. Scripted lessons. Online resources, Moocs. No excuses schools. All of these are modern trends in education. None of these are about good education. It's really demoralizing reading article after article devaluing true master teachers and real education.

So, last night was a real pleasure.

I attended a talk, given by Alan Alda on communicating science. The talk was sponsored by The Academy for Teachers. I grew up watching Hawkeye on MASH and more recently Arnold Vinick on The West Wing but Mr. Alda has really been keeping himself busy in the world of education. Check out what he's doing at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

At it's core, Mr. Alda's talk was about teaching. Making a connection with your students and engaging them. The exact opposite of many of the current ed reform trends.

Mr. Alda talked about the Flame Challenge where he challenged scientists to teach 11 year olds all about a candle without dumbing it down. Communication.

He also talked about story telling. At one point he had a volunteer from the audience carry a glass across the stage. He then had her do it again, but this time with a full glass telling her "if you spill a drop everyone in your village will die." The difference in audience attention was striking.

Mr. Alda also talked about using improvisational games to help students open up as well as about the curse of knowledge.

One of my favorite parts of the talk was when an audience member asked for a few teaching tips. He replied that he hates tips because out of context, without the connection to the class, they're meaningless. Mr. Alda used as an example:

Imagine that you're about to give a piano recital at Carnegie Hall and you asked for a few tips.

If you've never played before, those tips aren't going to help you.

I'm asked for CS teaching tips all the time, and Mr. Alda very much captured my feelings on the subject. My friend and Colleague Jim Cocoros also captured the feeling when he reminded me that the only "tip" he gives new teachers is "be yourself." I couldn't agree more.

It was a delightful and a refreshing evening. I very much appreciate and admire what Mr. Alda is doing beyond his acting and while I very much hope he's able to extend his reach to more high school teachers as he continues to work on communicating in science.


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